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Apple HomePod Mini: Good at speaking, better at listening

(TECH NEWS) Apple is making another push into the world of bluetooth enabled always-on speakers with a revamped HomePod Mini, which is a fantastic listener (and why that might be bad).

Apple Home Pod Mini, raising issues of privacy.

Apple just keeps doing stuff. And more stuff. They release new M1 chips and new iPhones and a bunch of other things. One of the newer options is their HomePod Mini, which is sure to be a big seller this holiday as companies continue to push always-on Bluetooth-enabled home speakers with promises of ease of use and improved quality of life.

It’s an easy sell for Apple, especially if you’re living in their product ecosystem of mobile devices, messaging apps, smart watches, and all the other bits of technology that can easily communicate with each other in a seamless fashion.

It’s a beautiful thing from a consumer perspective – the ability for your photos to be instantly accessible and easily shared across multiple domains and devices, to stop a podcast in your car and immediately resume it at your work desk, and knowing that your data is always backed up and retrievable.

At $99, the HomePod Mini further tightens this web of accessibility – it brings Siri access into the comfort of your home, you can pair two of them together to provide stereo sound with your AppleTV, and it can hook into your iMessages contact list to let you dictate texts quickly. While other devices can do this as well, the AppleTV carries more versatility by offering access to more streaming services than Amazon’s Fire devices (though in the world of streaming, this most likely gets evened out over time).

And all of that is great on the surface – the device is delivering on its promises and consistent use would easily justify a purchase. There is no question on utility and whether or not it is delivering and performing as desired from a consumer’s perspective. To suggest otherwise would be unfair and suggest that someone has an axe to grind – anecdotal evidence or other similarly unfounded premises stretched far and painted with broad strokes. I had an iPhone that broke years ago and in my frustration, I switched to Android. Still, that’s not much of a reason to
denigrate a new speaker from Apple. Reviews are glowing and rightfully so.

Perhaps the only true thing that should be questioned relates to user privacy. Apple has gone on record and stated on numerous occasions that they are committed to user privacy – that their devices do not record everything that is said, nor that audio data is stored forever to be mined for monetary purposes. CEO Tim Cook even stated strong convictions about privacy as a fundamental human right.

Go to their site and you’ll find a really snazzy page that tells you how your data is protected – that messages are encrypted end-to-end during transmission, identifying information is not included in the transmissions to Apple’s servers, and their Apple Pay system means you never divulge credit card information. Let’s be clear – these are excellent, wonderful things, and Apple should be applauded for doing what it has done. Such actions are at least a step above other tech giants in this realm.

Consumers should know, however, that despite these claims, Apple has been caught listening in on personal matters, and that privacy controls may not be enabled by default (and could be difficult to track down for an average user). I found a rather intense and detailed breakdown of such issues through this wonderful post by Ian Bogost, who discusses the controversy in a clear and concise (if alarming) way. The short answer – Apple gets a lot of public support and approval for its stance on privacy, but should be admonished for still providing several avenues of intrusion and for working with companies that may be actively violating privacy.

Where does that leave us with the HomePod Mini? It is a fantastic device, sure, but as with anything that is always-on and always listening, consumers may want to first consider how much utility is gained for potential privacy sacrificed. Although, the pessimist says we’re all being tracked anyway, but I want to end this on a positive note.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

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